Saturday 22 June 2019

Louis versus Schmeling | June 22nd 1938

Louis versus Schmeling (Part of Sports Illustrated’s “Living Legends” series) by Bob Peak. 18” x 22” Lithograph, (1973).

“Joe Louis is the hardest puncher that I’ve ever seen … He’s a good man. Anyone who plans on beating him had better know what they’re doing.”

- Max Schmeling before the the first Louis-Schmeling fight in 1936.

The rematch between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1938 was one of three world heavyweight championship bouts designated as the ‘Fight of the Century’ at the time each was contested. Before it, Jack Johnson’s meeting in 1910 with the previously undefeated Jim Jefferies had been fought on the basis that the winner would decide on the issue of racial supremacy. And in 1971, the meeting between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, two undefeated men with a claim to the title, was framed as one between representatives of the ‘establishment’ and the ‘counter-culture’.

The match between Louis and Schmeling, which took place with the backdrop of a looming world war, was touted as a battle for ideological supremacy between the freedom-embracing ideals of America on the one hand, and the totalitarian designs represented by Nazism.

Louis had unexpectedly lost the first match, a non-title one, in 1936. The result had delighted the Nazi regime which of course promoted the idea of the racial supremacy of the Aryan race. Hitler’s propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels had proclaimed it a victory for Germany, while the Nazi weekly journal Das Schwarze Korps had noted: “Schmeling’s victory was not only sport. It was a question of prestige for our race.”

Schmeling became an unwilling propaganda tool for the Nazi regime, and in the build up to the fight, he was invited to lunch with Adolf Hitler, who had previously shown no interest in the sport of boxing. As they watched the film of the first bout, Hitler slapped Schmeling on his leg each time he saw a blow of Schmeling’s connect with Louis.

Schmeling had accomplished the unthinkable by closely studying Louis’s fighting habits. He noted a predisposition on Louis’s part of lowering his left hand after throwing a left jab. In the fourth round, he threw an overhand right counter to a Louis jab, and dropped Louis for the first time in his professional career. Louis never recovered, and a succession of similar counters and combination punches took their toll over the course of the bout which ended in the twelfth round.

But Louis’s first round destruction of his German rival –accomplished in two-minutes and four-seconds- revenged his humiliating loss and elevated even further the adoration felt for him by the American public.

The match was also a milestone in broadcast history as an estimated 70 million people listened on their radios. It is believed to be the largest audience in history for a single radio broadcast.

© Adeyinka Makinde (2019)

Adeyinka Makinde is the author of Dick Tiger: The Life and Times of a Boxing Immortal and Jersey Boy: The Life and Mob Slaying of Frankie DePaula. He is also a contributor to the Cambridge Companion to Boxing.

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